This year I am joining in once again with Book Bingo hosted by Theresa, Amanda and Ashleigh and this round I am checking off Travelling Back in Time with The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. It was a bit of a struggle to think of a time I would like to travel back to, because when you think about all the times throughout history, none of them were great for women. The Suffrage Movement of the early twentieth century, though, would have been a very interesting and turbulent time, to say the least.
Beginning in the late 19th century, The Dictionary of Lost Words follows Esme as she assists her father in the Scriptorium collecting and defining words to be included in the Oxford Dictionary. But Esme discovers that some words are more valued than others, and the words often discarded relate to the experiences of women. It was men who decided which words were important and more often than not, the meanings and quotations that were used were taken from books written by men. So Esme starts collecting the words of women and these become the basis for her Dictionary of Lost Words.
As the story progresses we meet the women who play an important role in Esme’s life. Lizzie is a house maid, who has been “in service” since the age of 13, when her mother died. Lizzie recognises herself in the first word that Esme collects, “bondmaid: a bonded servant; bound to serve until death,” and aptly notes on how she too was likely to be in service until she died. The moment that Esme records Lizzie’s definition of a word instils a sense of awe – it was the first time that anyone had put her words into writing, to be remembered, to be read by others. Everything else she produces in her life is just to be eaten, burnt or thrown away. But Lizzie knows that the Suffrage Movement wasn’t for the likes of her – “It’s for ladies with means, and such ladies will always want someone else to scrub their floors and empty their pots…If they get the vote, I’ll still be Mrs Murray’s bondmaid.”
Esme’s godmother, Ditte makes an important point on the Suffrage Movement, noting that it would be a long campaign and everyone would have their own part to play, doing what they do best. Some women would chain themselves to posts and initiate hunger strikes in prison, while other women would write. Ditte, and her sister Beth, live a most unusual life for women of that time, sharing a house together, contributing to the Oxford Dictionary, having their own literary careers and enjoying the respect of male scholars. It is an example to Esme of what life could be. However, Ditte and Beth are in a privileged position, having inherited a house so they did not have to marry. Many women were not so fortunate.
The campaign for women’s suffrage in the UK was indeed a long one. While most women in Australia had received the vote not long after the turn of the century, it was not until 1928 that women in the UK over the age of 21 could vote on the same basis as men. The Suffrage movement, and even the feminist movement today, has often been accused of elitism, being less concerned with those outside the educated and privileged classes – women like Lizzie. Even in Australia, the vote was not extended to all women. One wonders if the battle may have been won earlier if it had been more inclusive and less confrontational.
On the other hand, maybe it would have made no difference at all, as illustrated by the celebrations held at the completion of the Oxford Dictionary in 1928. A fancy dinner was held for the men involved with the Dictionary. However, despite many women contributing and working on the dictionary, none were invited to the dinner, but three women were graciously allowed to watch the men eat from a seat in the balcony. Unbelievable.
The Dictionary of Lost Words was a great read, depicting the challenges and prejudices that women of that time faced and the battle to achieve the things we take for granted today: the right to vote, to be awarded the degree you studied for, and despite the balancing act, the ability to have both career and family. Travelling back in time might be interesting, but I wouldn’t want to live there.